Smart move with smart grids
THE MOST EFFECTIVE way to explain the concept of a smart grid in the Barbados context is to explain what it can do to transform the lives of Barbadians.
First, let us consider our current electricity grid in Barbados. Barbadians have enjoyed a very stable power network over the years because the Barbados Light & Power Company Limited (BL&P) has continually invested in our grid and has kept it as advanced as possible.
Our stable power supply is built on the electricity grid and infrastructure. The local grid is made up of the electricity generation, transmission cables, distribution cables and control systems managed by BL&P to link their power sources to local homes and businesses demands.
Our grid today is very advanced.
As we go about our daily routines preparing breakfast – turning on the microwave oven, toaster or toaster oven, hair dryer, electric stove to fry eggs, while watching television with the lights still on – the grid is making many real time decisions to ensure that everything works.
Managing the supply and demand of electricity is a very complex task. When you turn on your microwave oven the power to make it work is not stored in your house waiting for you to use it.
Electrical power has to be supplied from the grid. BL&P makes decisions about how best to meet customer demand at any moment via the use of control computers that can relate historical usage data to current demand.
By using historical usage data, computers and experienced technical staff, the BL&P is making decisions about how best to meet our needs day by day.
The most challenging thing for any utility company to manage is peak demand. The utility companies would need a crystal ball and a few people who can see into the future to know if 4 000 Barbadians are going to decide to warm yesterday’s leftovers at 7:30 a.m. in St Lucy and St Philip.
It’s a difficult job but it is being done every day and we have grown to expect that when we turn on a device it just works and a power outage is not caused as a result of doing so.
Let’s consider what is about to change. We are currently seeing a wave of solar photovoltaic (PV) system installations in Barbados and there are a number of investors who want to become independent power providers (IPP). These will likely be large solar farms that provide power to consumers. This surge in renewable energy demand will introduce a number of new power generators to the grid that BL&P currently has no control over.
What makes this decision even more complicated is that PV systems are intermittent power sources, therefore during periods of no or low sunlight these generators will produce reduced power and BL&P would have to produce power to supplement. This now adds an additional problem for BL&P to manage the grid.
How would a smart grid help? Today the utility company can only try to anticipate what is going to happen, but the smart grid will provide two-way communication between every single consumer, the utility company and the new IPPs.
This will enable real time information gathering on our consumption and real time control of alternative power generators and control of distributed storage. Therefore, responding to power variations becomes more intelligent and more proactive.
In the future, power will become more of a commodity and the grid operator will be the broker who buys and sells power.
The price of electrical power will vary depending on time of day, availability or lack thereof, demand outside of normal consumption profile, and so on. The smart grid today is only a fraction of what it will be capable of in the future.
What does this mean to the average consumer? The first thing it means is that the grid will maintain its stability as we adopt more and more renewable energy, and thus mitigates one of the major risks that concerns BL&P about the proliferation of renewable energy providers.
As we add more solar PV systems to the grid, the impact on the grid when there is a cloudy day, or even just managing non renewable energy demand, would be easier.
It would provide the infrastructure for IPPs to operate, which will give the non renewable energy customers some choice in provider and hopefully better rates. It would mean that you as a consumer can earn with peak demand management by allowing the utility to turn on or off appliances in your home remotely to help stabilise the grid when required, and you can sell back power when there is a demand.
Your electric car could become a storage facility for the utility to use in time of high demand with a reduced solar PV generation. These are a few of the benefits for the consumer with today’s smart grid.
I believe Barbados can be an example for the rest of the Caribbean and even the world if we embrace the energy revolution and implement technologies like the smart grid, energy management systems, and renewable energy generation.
Jerry Franklin is managing director of EnSmart Inc. Franklin is an engineer, energy auditor, equipment tester, and energy solutions provider.